This article was updated in January 2023 to reflect current trends and market conditions.
Automation is increasingly accessible to manufacturing SMEs as technology gets cheaper – and continuing labour shortages mean it’s now an important option to consider.
So why is automation beneficial, and how can small-to-medium businesses utilise it to improve manufacturing processes? To answer, we give you the benefits of automation, current trends for this sector, and a user-friendly guide to starting out with automation in your business.
What is automation in manufacturing?
Manufacturing automation refers to the use of technology, robots and automated equipment to power production processes and systems. This helps to establish lean assembly lines and greater efficiency through cost reductions and/or increased production capacity.
Why is manufacturing automation so important in 2023?
Inflation, supply delays, and labour shortages disrupting assembly lines are forcing manufacturers in 2023 to investigate new methods of eliminating old manual processes. Automation provides faster results, removes human error, and supports lean assembly lines.
Automation also helps to reduce reliance on skilled workers, a resource that has experienced critical shortages in recent years. Automation advancements are important for manufacturers because they help businesses to remain agile, efficient, and productive.
What are the three systems of manufacturing automation?
Manufacturing automation has altered the industry, increasing productivity with a shift from production line man hours to design, operation, and troubleshooting expertise of automated systems, software, and equipment.
Three categories of manufacturing automation have evolved to meet specific production needs: fixed, programmable and soft (or flexible) automation.
- Fixed automation manufacturing is a system where automated production processes and assembly are fixed to produce a single type of product. Also referred to as hard automation, the production sequence is fixed by the configuration of tooling and equipment. It’s difficult to change product styles once in place, so fixed automation is used by manufacturers of products with high demand volumes and production rates.
- Programmable automation enables commands to be programmed into the system to change the operation sequences and configurations. Programmable automation systems allow for production runs in varying quantities, and its flexible process means it is well-suited to batch production runs.
- Flexible automation is an adaptable method of manufacturing responsive to changing production needs. Computerised systems are programmed and controlled by human operators to produce multiple product types and quantities simultaneously. Production downtime between batches is avoided because changeover is achieved via computer programming, making flexible automation an excellent option for manufacturers of customised and made-to-order products.
These types of manufacturing automation come in a wide range of forms, from the use of conveyer belts for transporting goods, to assembly and packaging machinery, to specialised software and robotics.
How has automation changed manufacturing?
The effects of Covid-19 and pandemic lockdowns have changed the outlook for manufacturers as they seek to avoid future factory closures.
But even before this, automated factories and robotic technology had become the largest priority for manufacturers, followed by the implementation of digital platforms for manufacturing.
Automation has transformed manufacturing. As automated systems become increasingly smarter, cheaper, and more adaptable, the technology becomes easier to implement. As the cost of labour has risen, the cost of robotics has gone down: in fact, the average price of robots has halved in real terms in the last 3 decades.
In addition, there are now more people with the skills and experience needed to implement robotics in manufacturing systems.
How does automation save a manufacturer money?
Automation and digitisation of manufacturing processes will save a manufacturer money through increased productivity, a reduction in ongoing costs incurred through hiring employees, and by minimising or eliminating human error.
- Manufacturing processes and tasks are often repetitive and time-consuming. Automation boosts the productivity of such activities by working at higher speed and with greater precision than human workers. This also reduces the incidence of human error that can lead to rework, downtime or even injury.
- Savings on employee costs include the expensive hiring process, wages, leave and superannuation entitlements, as well as health and safety equipment such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
- Automation improves decision-making by enabling easy analysis of valuable data that may not be available when performing tasks manually. With automation, workflow tools collect and analyse information quickly, saving time and informing manufacturing decisions.
- Automation lowers ongoing costs while increasing output. Manufacturing growth relies in part on saving money and cutting operational costs. Automated manufacturing tools enable greater productivity using less resources and freeing employees for other important tasks.
What are the benefits of automation in manufacturing?
Productivity is the primary benefit of automation in manufacturing. Automating production processes saves time, reduces human error, and boosts productivity through these greater efficiencies. Repetitive, time-sensitive and resource-heavy manufacturing tasks and processes are a sure indicator an organisation will benefit from automation.
Software is another way to automate your processes. Using online inventory management, for instance, automates inventory control for real-time transparency and traceability of inventory stock, along with automated reorder alerts for greater efficiency.
Leveraging the benefits of automated manufacturing can provide significant competitive advantage. Benefits that automation brings include:
- Greater productivity. Machines operate continuously, maintaining the same speed around the clock if needed. Operations can continue longer and more efficiently, resulting in greater productivity and the ability work on new products without disrupting production.
- Improved performance. Machines perform manufacturing tasks with greater accuracy, often achieving outcomes beyond human capabilities. Automation reduces errors while improving speed and quality, maintaining consistent quality and a lower defect rate.
- A reduction in operating costs. While automation requires a significant upfront investment, when successful it provides a significant return on investment. A single machine can potentially perform the task of three or more people, substantially lowering operating costs.
- Improved workplace safety. Automation helps reduce the risk of workplace injuries and accidents. It removes workers far from potentially hazardous substances and processes, resulting in safer workplaces and an increase in productivity.
What automated manufacturing technology is now available?
Automation was initially largely applied to the automotive industry, but it has become increasing popular in several other areas.
Five areas of automated technology used in manufacturing today include automated production lines, automated assembly, lean assembly lines and robotics:
- Automated production lines exist in three categories: fixed automation, programmable automation, and flexible automation (discussed above). The system you use will depend on the type and volume of product being manufactured.
- Automated assembly uses production equipment specific to the various stages of assembly, from inspection and marking to product packaging. An automated assembly line usually consists of specialised and conveying equipment.
- Automation is crucial to lean manufacturing, enhancing lean assembly lines, and improving manufacturing processes and productivity. Automation can streamline lean assembly lines by reducing over-production, greater consistency, and optimised mistake-proofing.
- Robotics have evolved over the years, combining both computer science and engineering know-how to streamline manufacturing processes, improve efficiency and provide innovative technological solutions. Robots are now commonly used in the defence industry to perform military operations both human-crewed and unmanned.
- 3D automation is growing steadily across a diverse number of industries such as aerospace, automotive, medical, and customised consumer products. 3D printing brings digital flexibility to manufacturing operations, enables rapid prototyping, and means lighter, stronger parts and systems can be created.
How do you automate your manufacturing processes?
Automated tools and technology are becoming standard practice in manufacturing – but for businesses new to automation, where do you start?
The first step is to identify what manufacturing processes can and should be automated. Not every task can be automated, but by identifying those that can, businesses can develop a roadmap of current processes to determine where they are able to transition to increasing levels of automation.
A simple way to identify these steps is to ask the following three questions:
1. Is the task repetitive?
Repetitive work to complete tasks is costly and impacts productivity. Repetitive manual processes increase labour costs. Unpredictable workflows can affect operations, particularly in manufacturing, where human error can result in injury. Automation can therefore be a solution to undertake repetitive jobs, reduce costs and increase productivity.
2. Is the task time-sensitive?
From perishability of raw materials to improving cycle times, the effective management of time-sensitive tasks in manufacturing improves productivity and is an indicator of profitability. Time-sensitive networking enables manufacturers to improve productivity and enables greater transparency and traceability for highly regulated industries such as food & beverage and pharmaceuticals.
3. Does the task require multiple people and processes?
Tasks that require multiple steps and staff can be resource heavy, expensive – and they’re more prone to disruption or human error. Automation will streamline these processes, minimise disruption and free up employees for other strategic tasks.
As with other business processes, successful automation in manufacturing processes requires companies to track goals and objectives for continuous improvement.
Lastly, don’t forget staff training.
Employee training and building staff capabilities has been identified as a primary reason for automation success in some organisations. Ensuring employees are involved in and trained for automated tech helps to guarantee effective long-term benefits.
Why is manufacturing automation more accessible in 2023?
Technology and automation have become increasingly more established in manufacturing, and as with any other industry, innovations have been tweaked and improved over time. As demand increases, innovative automation tools and technology become more widely available at lower cost.
Key factors leading to greater accessibility and implementation of manufacturing automation in 2022 include:
- Accessible talent
Finding the staff capable of designing, installing, operating, and maintaining automated manufacturing systems has become much easier. Specialist skills in automation and robotic engineering are now widely taught in schools and universities.
- Advances in computing software
Software-development and networking technologies have improved the speed of assembling and installing robotics. The availability of software to test and programme robotic applications is now cheaper, simpler, and less time-consuming.
- Ease of integration
Intelligent automation now incorporates plug-and-play technology using sensors and actuators that self-monitor and provide status reports to a central control system. This assists process control and data collection for maintenance, troubleshooting, and for continuous improvement purposes.
- New capabilities
Robotics are getting smarter and more intuitive. Now capable of integrating information from multiple sensors, robotics monitor and adapt movement in real time. Additionally, with the use of powerful computer technology and spectral analysis, robots are capable of checking product quality at each assembly point, reducing the need for significant post-production inspection.
How can SMEs successfully implement manufacturing automation?
A recent PWC survey indicates that digital manufacturing is still the highest ranked platform for spending priorities, along with data analytics.
The same survey indicated that over 80% of respondents anticipated technology budgets would increase over the following 12 months with spending on automation, cloud-based technologies, and the internet of things as key priorities.
Another finding worth noting is that SMEs with automated processes have experienced higher rates of success than larger organisations: 65% of SMEs reported improvements from the introduction of automation, compared to 55% of respondents from larger companies.
A McKinsey survey outlines three key factors that influence the success of automation implementation:
1. Making automation a strategic priority. When setting strategic goals, SMEs should consider the organisation as a whole and determine those areas that would benefit most from automation. This could start with implementing simple solutions such as online inventory control or packaging automation that frees staff to do other activities.
2. Focusing equally on people as well as technology. Ascertaining automation-related skill gaps then developing and building capability through employee training has been identified as a primary foundation in achieving automation success.
3. Creating a scalable operating model. Choose automation systems that offer a variety of tools, can be integrated, and are scalable and dynamic enough to grow with the business.
The cost of automation has previously made implementing new technology a challenge for manufacturing SMEs. As automation technology and tools continue to become more accessible and cost-effective, SMEs should seriously consider the long-term benefit of investing in automation tools and technology.
What is the future of manufacturing automation?
The real future of manufacturing automation is unknown, but with ongoing innovation and research, the scope for automation in this industry will only increase in future.
Areas of automation that are experiencing continued growth include:
- Mobile robotics. A rapidly expanding field of scientific research, autonomous mobile robots are making automation significantly more attainable for SMEs. From drone deliveries to mobile industrial robots that transform internal logistics, the adoption of mobile robotics will become increasingly commonplace in organisations of every size.
- Artificial intelligence and machine learning. AI and machine learning provides companies with greater data that ever before. AI technology enables data-driven decision-making to improve aspects of a manufacturing operation, such as asset tracking, supply chain visibility and inventory control.
- Additive manufacturing. Providing digital flexibility to manufacturing operations, additive manufacturing can deliver lighter, stronger, highly customisable parts and components, saving energy, reducing waste and making goods last longer.